Analysis: The dawn of Olmert's second gov't

The victories of Peres and Barak mark spectacularly successful week for the prime minister.

peres olmert hug 298 (photo credit: )
peres olmert hug 298
(photo credit: )
The pundits were all patting themselves on the back for getting it right this time. They had said over the last two days that Shimon Peres was in the lead, and he indeed went on to win the presidency. What they conveniently forgot was that they had also said it would be very close; no one predicted Peres winning by such a wide margin, leaving his rivals, Reuven Rivlin and Colette Avital, no choice but to graciously pull out of the race to avoid further humiliation in the second round. More than anything else over the last year, the results of the presidential race have put the political scene back into perspective: Despite the war and everything that has happened since, the opposition is still small and therefore ineffective. Labor is only the second-largest member in a coalition which is still led by the chairman of the largest party, Kadima, and that man has once again proved himself an unparalleled political tactician in masterminding Peres's breathtaking victory. Peres might have finally won a political race, and Ehud Barak carried off an almost unimaginable comeback in the Labor primaries, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is also a winner this week. Veteran Peres-watchers have voiced the prophecy that he will turn out to be a major headache for the prime minister, continuously meddling in affairs of state and springing diplomatic initiatives. That would certainly fit in with Peres's old image as the "irrepressible underminer" (as Yitzhak Rabin memorably called him) and he certainly earned the title for many years, making hell for a series of prime ministers - Rabin, Begin, Shamir and Barak. But the fact is that at the age of 80 Peres began to change. Of all people, it was with Ariel Sharon that Peres managed to make his peace and transform himself into a loyal cabinet minister. And ever since Sharon's stroke, he has proved himself to be Olmert's staunch ally, backing him as caretaker prime minister and Kadima leader and, more crucially, supporting him publicly after the war (though behind closed doors, in front of the Winograd Committee, he was less supportive). Despite being in opposing parties for most of their political careers, the personal relationship between the two has been warm for years. Olmert, as Jerusalem mayor, was uncomfortable with the Likud slogan of the 1996 elections, "Peres will divide Jerusalem," and took the first opportunity after the campaign to take him on a personal tour of the capital, hosted a dinner in his honor, apologized for the slogan and announced that Peres "is a friend of Jerusalem." Incidentally, now that Peres is leaving the Knesset after an unprecedented parliamentary career of 48 years, Olmert is now the veteran MK, the only one to have taken his seat in the 1970s. Now that Olmert and his team have delivered the presidency, both friends have a lot for which to be grateful to each other. Peres won't have any inclination to go behind the PM's back, and Olmert will certainly be able to use him as a super-ambassador-at-large. With the advanced disintegration of the Palestinian Authority, the Syrian conundrum, the Saudi initiative and the Iranian threat, Olmert has a heap of diplomatic challenges. Peres, with his international stature, would be the ideal person to go around the world to push the government's positions. A joint Peres-Olmert diplomatic operation would also cut Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni down to size, leaving her out of the big picture, relegated to the minor maintenance circuit. Another bonus for Olmert. Livni could turn out one of the big losers of this week. Only two months ago she seemed on the brink of the premiership. Now she is outside an inner circle which will probably include Olmert, Peres and the new Labor chairman, soon-to-be defense minister Barak. Another loser is Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, who was hoping that a Rivlin presidential victory would be another step on his way back to power. As he walked up to the Knesset podium to receive his envelope for the first-round vote, Netanyahu's body language gave away the fact that he had already realized Peres was about to win. His slow gait made plain that there was no eagerness for the task at hand. Upon leaving the voting booth, he exchanged warm words and a firm handshake with Marina Solodkin, the most outspoken of the handful of Kadima rebels. "If only there were more like her," he must have been thinking. In the 10 months that have passed since the end of the Second Lebanon War, Netanyahu has harbored hopes of the public anger over the war's outcome sweeping away the coalition, leading to the inevitable elections. But, so far, he might be doing well in the polls but is no closer to a general elections in which those ratings can be translated into real power. Barak's victory in the Labor primaries was another major blow. Barak might have promised Ophir Paz-Pines to try and bring the elections forward if Olmert doesn't resign after the final Winograd report is issued, but the moment he sits in the defense minister's chair, he will find all manner of reasons why early elections are not in the national interest. If Ami Ayalon, another big loser this week, hadn't seen his constant lead in the polls disappear and had won the Labor chairmanship, the resulting mayhem in Labor could well have caused the swift demise of the coalition. Barak's victory will most likely cause far fewer ripples. He will replace Amir Peretz smoothly at defense, while Labor already has an empty spot around the cabinet table which Peretz can keep, to stop him from becoming a resentful element on the backbenches. The other Labor ministers are expected to retain their jobs in the coming reshuffle, with the exception perhaps of Education Minister Yuli Tamir, who might be ousted to also allow Ayalon a cabinet portfolio, thereby keeping all the major Labor elements inside the tent. Tamir commands very little support in the Labor Central Committee and her ouster wouldn't cause a ruckus. Meanwhile Olmert has the prestigious Finance Ministry still empty and Peres's Negev and Galilee Development portfolio to hand out; that should enable him to reward supporters and minimize dissent within Kadima. The Kadima member who will replace Peres in the Knesset member is also a major gain for the government. Maj-Gen (res.) Prof. Yitzhak Ben- Yisrael will not be just another backbencher. One of the most respected voices in the defense establishment and scientific community, if he takes his new political career seriously, he could give a significant boost to his party's problematic image. Ben-Yisrael will also be one of the most important voices on the Iranian threat. He believes in a military strike and unlike many defense analysts, he is convinced that Israel has the capabilities to seriously cripple the Iranian nuclear program. As former chief of IDF R&D and head of the Israeli Space Agency, he should know. This week's political developments have given Olmert the chance to launch what in effect will be his second government. True, the final Winograd Report and the investigations still under way against him remain storm clouds on his horizon, but he has already weathered similar conditions. It's hard to imagine Winograd writing anything worse than appeared in the first report and, so far, Olmert has always managed to scrape through all legal troubles. All in all, this has been a spectacularly successful week for him.